Covenant Theology

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Covenant Theology was also known as "Federal Theology." This formulation of Calvinism arose in various places, both on the continent and in the British Isles, in the 16th century, and was greatly furthered in the 17th century by theologians like Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), H. Witsius (1636-1708), and Francis Turretin (1623-1687). According to this theology, God has dealt with man in essentially two ways: the Covenant of Works, made with Adam, and the Covenant of Grace, by which men receive salvation on the basis of faith. The Covenant of Works, it is said, offers salvation on the ground of obedience, although no man is able thus to merit eternal life since the fall of man. It should also be pointed out that the Covenant of Grace did not begin with Calvary or Pentecost; God also began its unfolding in the Garden of Eden. God has administered the Covenant of Grace in three dispensations: from Abraham to Moses, with circumcision as its sign; from Moses to Christ, with the Passover added; and from Christ to the end of the world, during which the two signs are baptism and the Lord's Supper.

According to the Covenant Theology, this Covenant of Grace extends to the children of believers. One believing parent has the right to regard his or her children as participants in the Covenant of Grace. Hence such children are to be baptized. Just as the Abrahamic Covenant was with the patriarch "and his seed after him," so the Covenant of Grace now includes the children of the "elect."

It is thus evident that the Reformed theologians as well as the Lutherans emphasized the continuity of the Old Testament and the New, the Mosaic and the New covenants. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, stressed the change, and the fulfillment of the first by the second. The symbol of the struggle between the Protestants and the Anabaptists was baptism. For the former, baptism was the successor to circumcision, and was therefore to be administered to the children of the Covenant. For the Anabaptists, baptism was the symbol of one's personal covenant with God to take up the cross of Christian discipleship and to live a holy life of obedience. Not to be forgotten was the fortunate rendering of 1 Peter 3:21 in the German Bible, where the apostle calls baptism the "covenant" of a good conscience with God (Bund eines guten Gewissens mit Gott). Actually, the rather obscure word employed in this classic passage for the Anabaptists is perhaps best rendered "appeal," but it served the Brethren well in their contention that baptism was the symbol of a commitment which no infant could make. As a matter of fact, it should also be mentioned that the Anabaptists believed in the salvation of their children without baptism. They relied, they said, not on water, but on the blood of Christ. That is, they rejected all sacramentalism and took their stand on the universal atonement made by Jesus.

The Anabaptist view that at baptism the individual believer makes a voluntary covenant with God, of which baptism is the symbol, and that the church is actually a brotherhood of such "covenanters" cannot properly be called a covenant theology. It is worth while noting, however, that the term "covenanter" (Bondgenooten) was much used in the early days of the Anabaptist movement in Northwest Germany and Holland. C. Krahn (Menno Simons, 1936, "Die Taufe der Bundgenossen," 22-23) points out that the idea was transplanted from Strasbourg to the North by Melchior Hoffman, 1530 and following, and that the new groups of Melchiorites called themselves "Covenanters." Krahn quotes a petition of Jakob Kautz and Wilhelm Reublin of 1529 to the Strasbourg Council (taken from Hulshof's Geschiedenis van de Doopsgezinden te Straatsburg, 1905), as saying: "When the merciful God called us by His grace to His marvelous light, we did not reject the heavenly message but made a covenant with God in our hearts, to serve Him henceforth in holiness all our days, by His power, and to report our purpose to the covenanters (Bundgenossen)."

Even in Reformed and Presbyterian circles the covenant theology is much less stressed than formerly. And some modern theologians, notably Karl Barth, are now beginning to recognize that infant baptism is inconsistent with that which the New Testament binds the baptized one to follow.

It is not clear whether the Anabaptist idea of the covenant had any influence on the rise of the covenant idea and theology among the Reformed theologians, in spite of the negative judgment on this point by such a scholar as L. J. Trinterud in "The Origins of Puritanism," Church History XX (1951) p. 56, footnote 28, which reads as follows:

The attempt to trace the origins of the church covenant idea in English Puritanism to an Anabaptist source, as in C. Burrage, The Church Covenant Idea, 1904, fails to take account of the indisputable, widespread interest, in both the Rhineland and England, in the social contract theory of the state, and in the covenant theology, prior to any possible influence from Anabaptist sources. Moreover, Burrage grants that the first clear, explicit use of the covenant notion in Anabaptist theology came in 1530, by Melchior Hoffman. Burrage believed that Hoffman had gotten these initial covenant notions (regarding baptism and the covenant) from other Anabaptists in Strassburg, in the same place, pp. 19 and following. Yet it was in Strassburg that Capito, Bucer, and others in the Rhineland cities had sponsored this idea apart from, and independent of, Anabaptist influences. Much more likely the Anabaptists in Strassburg got the idea from Capito (who was for a time very friendly to them) and from other Rhineland reformers through personal contact, or through books; or they also may have gotten at least elements of it from common late medieval notion. But, dependence of the English advocates of the church covenant idea upon Anabaptist sources cannot be maintained.

Walter Hollweg, in an article on Bernhard Buwo, a moderate opponent of Anabaptism, upholds the view, based on Buwo, Rembert, and Schrenk, that "very likely the Anabaptists gave the Reformers the idea of the 'covenant' and caused them to formulate their own thoughts along these lines. It is well known that the Anabaptists called themselves 'covenanters' (Bundgenossen) .... What was more logical for the Zürich Reformers than to investigate the Biblical content of the concept of the covenant in their struggle against the Anabaptists! In doing so they found a highly welcome starting point in their opposition and struggle" (p. 83). The origin of the Anabaptist concept of the covenant and its relationship to that of the Reformers still needs a thorough investigation.


The most comprehensive study of the continental covenant theology (Bund- or Föderaltheologie) is Gottlob Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund im älteren Protestantismus. Gütersloh, 1923; a complete bibliography on this subject is found in Schrenk's article, Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 2 ed., 5 v. Tübingen: Mohr, 1927-1932: I, col. 1364-1367.

Burrage, Champlin. The Church Covenant Idea, Its Origin and Its Development. Phil­adelphia, 1904.

Hollweg, W. "Bernhard Buwo, ein ostfrie­sischer Theologe aus dem Reformationsjahrhundert." Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst und Vaterländische Altertümer zu Emden (1923): 71-90.

The otherwise thorough study by Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church. American Society of Church History, 1952, does not discuss the covenant con­cept.

Author(s) John C Wenger
Date Published 1953

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Wenger, John C. "Covenant Theology." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 22 Sep 2019.

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Wenger, John C. (1953). Covenant Theology. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 September 2019, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 726-727. All rights reserved.

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